THERE is now a crowded field of candidates bidding to become Scotland’s next national park.

The Scottish Government has promised that by 2026 at least one will have been successful.

However, one region in particular is hoping that the patience and preparedness of its campaigners will pay off when Biodiversity Minister Lorna Slater eventually makes the announcement.

“The first meeting was in 2016,” said Rob Lucas, chairman of the Galloway National Park Association (GNPA).

“We have as many years doing this as some other campaigns will have months”.

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What started as a small community meeting has, over the past eight years, developed into a large and sophisticated campaign to secure national park status for Galloway.

There are now around 950 paid-up members of the GNPA, as well as 150 businesses who have backed the campaign.

“Initially, we thought it might just be the hospitality sector who were on board,” said Lucas.

“But the range of businesses supportive of the idea has really surprised.

“We’ve got butchers, bakers and if not a candlestick maker then at least the modern equivalent: an electrician”.

While other regions may struggle to show evidence of broad local support – an essential criteria laid out by the Scottish Government for a successful bid – the GNPA’s years of public meetings, drop-in sessions, and tireless advocacy allowed it to start the official nomination process from a position of strength.

The National: Chair of the Galloway National Park Association Rob LucasChair of the Galloway National Park Association Rob Lucas

People across Galloway are already familiar with the idea and aware of its potential benefits.

Even if they aren’t convinced, they’re at least not shocked at the idea of their region becoming a national park in less than two years’ time.

'We need more people' 

“We’re ready for it,“ said vice chair Sandra McDowall, a former LibDem councillor and ex-chair of the Wigtown Book Festival.

“Lots of rural businesses in Galloway are struggling at the moment and there’s not a single businessowner I’ve spoken to who couldn’t do with more people crossing the threshold.

“The book festival is wonderfully busy for 10 or 12 days of the year. But, honestly, we need more people to visit and to stay”.

The campaign has become somewhat of a talking shop for the myriad issues impacting many rural places in Scotland.

The National: The Wigtown Book Festival brings hoards of tourists to GallowayThe Wigtown Book Festival brings hoards of tourists to Galloway

While aware that it may not the right approach for every region, McDowall told The National that national park status could help solve problems such as depopulation and a lack of job prospects for young people in Galloway.

“We’ve got to accept that changes are coming our way whether Galloway becomes a national park or not,” she said.

“We’ve got this demographic timebomb, we’re the second oldest population in Scotland, and the poorest population based on average wages.

“We’ve also got the second biggest population decline in mainland Scotland. I delivered a session to a secondary school a few weeks ago where the entire student population was 18 pupils.

“This isn’t some remote island, there’s schools in Shetland with more kids!

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“It’s an indicator that things just can’t go on the way they are.”

She added: “We’re not going to attract large-scale industry because we’re too far off the main road network. “We’ve tried and been let down so many times in the past. So, for us, encouraging more people to come to Galloway is the next best thing.

“Of course, some people deride tourism as a low-paid industry but I think we’ve got to be positive.

“We have so much going for us and the more people come, the more businesses thrive and can invest in their staff”.

Biodiversity and beavers 

Of course, it’s not all about the economy.

Indeed, many environmentalists continue to question whether Scotland’s existing national parks do enough to protect and improve biodiversity.

However, Lucas said there is ample opportunity to improve things for wildlife, even with a large commercial forestry industry in the area.

“We don’t get to determine the final boundaries of the park but within our proposed area roughly 15-20% is already designated for nature conservation,” he said.

“Since we sit in the mildest, most southerly bit of Scotland it’s also key for us to create wildlife corridors, which, as the temperature changes, will allow species to move progressively up the coast.

The National: The South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project has helped bolster Galloway's populationThe South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project has helped bolster Galloway's population

“Much of the existing commercial forestry in Galloway was planted on poorly chosen land, making it difficult to manage for biodiversity.

“But Forestry and Land Scotland are already starting the process of restructuring it, moving commercial forestry to lower, more sheltered land and allowing higher ground to be used for much more mixed woodland.”

While the reintroduction of species such as beaver are not front and centre of the campaign, Lucas said it was all about managing habitat in the right way.

“It’s not as if we’re unfamiliar with reintroductions,” he said.

“We’ve had the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project, we were one of the first areas to reintroduce red kites, and we’re now in the second round of reinforcing pine marten populations.

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“We don’t tend to have large areas of intensive farming where beavers cause problems, like in the Tay valley. We’ve even got quite a few low-lying areas where they could benefit people in terms of flood prevention.”

Whether it’s successful or not, the process of campaigning for national park status has clearly engaged Galloway’s communities in discussions they need to be having: about depopulation, climate change, and maintaining a sustainable local economy. That is a victory in itself.

Still, with less than a month to go until nominations close on February 29, Galloway may very well be the gambling man’s safest bet.